Longtime business organization leader takes look back, look ahead
Sandra Slattery has been executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce since January 1985. Founded in 1889, the chamber’s current mission statement says it is “is organized to advance the welfare and prosperity of the City of Ashland; to preserve the competitive enterprise system; to promote civic, commercial, industrial, tourism and agricultural interests of the city; to create a more intelligent business and public opinion regarding city, county, state and national legislative and political affairs; to promote prudent business practices, expansion and community growth; and to promote and facilitate efficient and effective advertising, services and benefits for its members.” A 12-member board, supplemented by seven ex officio officers representing the City of Ashland, Ashland School District, Southern Oregon University, Asante Ashland Community Hospital, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Travel Ashland, oversees its operations. Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth interviewed Slattery in January.
HD: If you had to answer the question, where is the Ashland Chamber of Commerce right now, what would you say?
SS: The Ashland Chamber has always been an advocate for local businesses and a strong community through business investment, support and long-standing community partnerships. We also see ourselves as an organization that focuses on economic development as it relates to our city and the region. Since all of our businesses in Ashland are dependent on the economic environment of our region, we cannot ignore opportunities and barriers that may exist. The Ashland Chamber is leading efforts to help our business community better understand the changing economic climate and how to improve their businesses to take advantage of opportunities or pivot in face of obstacles so that they can continue positive growth.
The chamber has coordinated and managed the largest community events in Ashland for many decades with the Fourth of July Celebration, the Children’s Halloween Celebration and the Festival of Light. This includes the lighting and decorating of Ashland creating a magical destination for shopping, dining and playing during the holidays.
HD: What services and/or resources do you offer businesses that are unique to Ashland?
SS: We see ourselves not only as an important resource for new businesses starting out, but also as an accelerator for existing businesses that need support in growing.
We serve as a technical advisor for small businesses providing them critical resource links to grants, loans, programs and rules affecting their ability to operate.
We offer a number of services for people looking to start their businesses. For example, we offer resources that can help businesses get off to a good start financially and sustain a good path through our “The Language of Business” video series. Existing businesses can also benefit from our resources that help improve their financial health, but we can also help established businesses grow by connecting them with additional resources and contacts within our network that can assist.
The chamber offers a number of ways a business can get the word out of their products and services through advertising in customer-based publications such as the Living & Doing Business Guide, Visitor Guide and the Ashland Chamber website.
Admittedly, the focus of the Ashland Chamber is less political than others. We want to focus on improving the health of our business climate and assisting area businesses in being successful and sustainable which in turn has a positive impact on the entire community.
We promote Ashland through the dynamic efforts of Travel Ashland, the DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) for Ashland who has recently launched a new and exciting rebrand for tourism inspiring multiple ways people can engage in all our amenities throughout the year. This new brand was developed after a deep and independent analysis of our existing and high-potential visitors revealing new markets.
HD: How many businesses are members of the chamber and what resources do they receive? How has your chamber membership fluctuated during the pandemic, if at all?
SS: Chamber membership always fluctuates depending on the needs of businesses as well as the economic environment at the time. As a chamber, we are always looking to expand our membership and provide support and resources to new and current businesses and help established businesses relocate in Ashland as they desire. We provide opportunities for education and promotion as well as helping businesses connect with other businesses and resources that can assist them.
HD: How has COVID-19 changed running/starting/expanding a business in Ashland?
Certainly, there isn’t a business that wasn’t impacted by COVID-19 over the past almost two years as it required an immediate pivot to try to find new footing. As businesses adjusted to the daily changes and government rules and regulations, they also found themselves needing to continually assess the changes in their marketplace and adjust their model accordingly. Nimbleness is the key to success and it could not have been truer that in the past two years. It is not a “return to normal” business approach but one of finding sometimes an entirely new pathway. There were no doubt lessons learned for everyone in the business community during the pandemic that will reverberate for years to come.
As the impacts from the pandemic continued longer than any of us could have imagined, it revealed a need for us to take a deeper look at what were short term impacts and what were more long-term challenges to our economy. While we are dependent on a base of tourism and higher education, we clearly realized expanding and diversifying that base would allow for more resiliency to weather the next economic disruption.
For 2022 and beyond, the Ashland Chamber will be focusing on how to leverage long-standing, strong relationships with institutions like SOU to identify a strategy that can help diversify our economy and improve our economic resiliency as a business community going forward, while also continuing to strengthen our important tourism sector.
HD: What have businesses been going through during COVID-19? How have you seen them struggle and how have you seen them thrive?
SS: In any business, consistency and transparency when it comes to the operating environment are crucial because it helps businesses plan accordingly.
One of the great challenges for the businesses during the pandemic has been the ever- changing landscape when it comes to rules and regulations as well as the lack of transparency in regard to the justification of the changes and when the new rules may occur or be lifted.
Businesses were often stuck not knowing when to hire or scale down or whether to make a large capital expenditure or not because it was often unclear what regulations were coming next or when. When those new regulations did finally come down, businesses were forced to change paths quickly. That is difficult for any businesses, especially smaller businesses that don’t have large operating reserves to use
This constant whiplash effect caused some businesses to close and just wait until there was a clearer picture while some closed down all together.
HD: Could you share, in general, any additional reflections on 2020 and 2021 related to businesses in Ashland?
SS: We have realized more than ever how connected we all are to each other and in many ways dependent on one another for our successes. Over the past two years, the pandemic presented some historic challenges to our business community, but it also exposed our need to seek diversification strategies within our overall economy.
The Ashland Chamber feels it is important for the business community to have a diversified business base so that our economy can pivot and adjust as needed as the ever-changing economic environment continues to shift.
While we certainly are, and likely will be, an economy that is heavily invested in tourism and higher education, we need other industries that can thrive by taking advantage of these strengths and leveraging them, as well as, finding opportunities for new sustainable year-round businesses.
HD: What are goals for the chamber in 2022?
SS: We are excited about 2022, the opportunities for Ashland businesses and those in the region. The Ashland Chamber will be leading on economic development strategies for the Ashland community. We are designing a strategy for economic diversification that will help lead our businesses and regional performing arts into the future.
We will continue to support and accelerate new, prospective and established businesses into the future as we build these plans with them and our community partners underscoring we are all in this together.
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.